Dairy farmer, Michael Gowen, says he has had a “positive” experience with clover over the past three years, but he was “terrified at the start, although confidence grew as time progressed”.
He reveals that the economical benefits are “unquestionable”, and he believes that the industry will become more sustainable if more farmers embrace clover.
Earlier this week at Teagasc’s National Dairy Conference – which carried the theme of turning challenges into opportunities – he provided an insight into his journey of meeting the challenges of lower chemical nitrogen use on his 125-cow farm in Co Cork.
In summary, his farm is a total of 70.5ha across four blocks, 33ha of which is his milking platform. He carries some in-calf heifers and calves on the farm, while some in-calf heifers are part of a contract rearing arrangement.
This equates to a stocking rate of 2.5 LU/ha on the whole farm and a stocking rate of 3.76 cows/ha on the milking platform.
In terms of performance, the herd averages 488kgs of milk solids from a concentrate input of just over 560kgs of milk sold and is on track to reach 520kgs of milk solids this year.
He told attendees: “The reason I chose to incorporate clover here was because I think it is only a matter of time before we are going to be forced into less N fertiliser use.”
“The follow-on from that is that we are going to grow less grass, and the quality of the grass mid-season is going to reduce.”
“So, that will have a negative impact on the finances of the farm, so what I am hoping to do is to incorporate clover into the farm to fix N, and by doing that, it is going to replace artificial nitrogen.”
“The silver lining of that is reducing my fertiliser costs for the year. In the past, I would have used every kg of chemical nitrogen allowed to me.” he added.
Over the coming years, he will have grass-only swards and clover-only swards, so he will have two management strategies for each.
He said there might be some challenges with oversowing as it “can be a hit and mass”.
But, he revealed that the biggest challenge he faced was in his own headspace, in “trying to convince myself that first of all, it was the right thing to do and secondly, that I would have confidence in my own ability to manage it afterwards”.
“There are enough templates out there in terms of research and commercial farms that have already made a success of this, and from now on, I intend to follow what is going on, on those farms.”
He said that while he is in the early stages of his journey to improving farm productivity in a lower N input system, but he is confident that he can “make a success of it”.
The conference highlighted that a change of mindset/attitude, commitment and confidence are keys to success in achieving this.
Gowen’s advice to farmers:
- Firstly, get soil fertility correct – he conducts soil tests at least every two years, if not every year
- Get pHs up to 6.4-6.5 – pH about 6.6;
- Get P and K indexes up to 3 and 4 – his farm is mostly index 4;
- Make best use of NMP – Nutrient Management Plan;
- Establish clover in the sward – either by reseeding or oversowing;
- Reseeding, in his view, the best and most realiable way of doing this, but can be slow – can take years;
- Incorporate some form of oversowing;
- After that, educate yourself on how to manage clover afterwards;
- Learn from others with experience.